A 21st Century

The Role of the Arts

Illustration – DO MAKE ME THINK!
‘The new artist does not imitate, they create. They do not describe, they design. What do they design? New values for life. And life is not only materialistic, as romanticists of utility try to present it, but is spiritual as well’.

Adapted from Theo van Doesburg – 1931
Through any transitional period bursting with new technology, the methods by which artists continue to contribute to culture, involves them continuing to also verse themselves in the use of all the new tools at their disposal. As we speed into the midst of a ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, it means either keeping up with the pace of change, or at the very least collaborating with those who do.

The 20th century showed us you could change the world through the lens of a camera, by much safer and sometimes more powerful means than by looking down the barrel of a gun. Making and spreading culture became a means of progression in its own right. Meanwhile events this century have already shown us the trajectory of the world can be changed equally effectively through the potent combination of data profiling, and algorithms written to exploit the people behind the profiles.

Keeping up with technological progress is then crucial to securing some kind of influence over the overall narrative as it unfolds. This was no different 100 years ago, when during the founding of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius wrote: ‘Today the arts exist in isolation, from which they can be rescued only through the cooperative effort of all craftsmen.’1 In 2010 John Maeda reframed the same challenge a slightly different way, this time with a tweet: ‘The future of design relies on grafting artists’ eyes and senses directly onto technologists’ hands and minds.’2

One strength of the arts lies in its ability to create magic. For the writer Alan Moore, ‘art is magic’, and he means this quite literally. For others, the magic that hides within art has more to do with an artist’s ability to produce something out of nothing – where something is conjured into the world that seemingly was not there before.3 So magic manifests in the ideas, objects and connections, or whatever the artist successfully manages to create. These ideas complement the philosophy of Gropius, who believed art was the spiritual product of craft, an activity where talent, dedication and magic criss-cross in an embrace of the resourcefulness of the human character, united by the process of making.

The writer John Higgs once described the role of the artist as ‘like that of the fisherman. It is their job to fish in the collective unconscious and use all their skill to best present his catch to an audience.’4 This is the same place where new values, meaning, and even cultural movements begin to emerge. Artists go fishing in the collective subconscious, and then they vocalise or visualise essentially what people are already thinking.

With similar sentiment, Adolf Loos summed up the artist’s responsibility this way: ‘Architecture arouses sentiments in man. The architect or designer’s task therefore, is to make those sentiments more precise.’5 If this is the case, then for all artists working to the Sustainable Movement’s narrative, there is huge untapped value to be found in how they manage to distill the story into something powerful – putting aside wistful theories in favour of tangible ideas and actions that people can reach out, grab and use themselves.

By using the plinth upon which art is displayed – for example the frame hung in the gallery, or the shiny edges of the smartphone or tablet display – art has the ability to capture in time, refine and define what is already happening. By offering something elevated back to its audience, art further inspires the collective imagination of the viewer once again. This relationship unfolds over time, in perpetuity.

Morse Peckham once said: ‘Art is the exposure to the tensions and problems of a false world in order that we may endure the tensions and problems of the real world.’6 Sadly we cannot avoid being exposed to the tensions of the real world, so we would clearly benefit from greater exposure to more meaningful and relevant art. Artists have shown before they can rise to the occasion and produce work of great significance. As Don Pendleton explains: ‘At their best artists create movements which change the world, or at the very least make people think twice about it.’7 Keith Haring practically managed this on his own with his work fighting the AIDS epidemic during the 1980s.

But how exactly do artists contribute to the overall narrative? Bob Hunter, co-founder of Greenpeace, gravitated towards the idea of creating ‘a mindbomb’ – an idea so big it quickly spreads around the world infecting everyone it touches with hope, laughter or even disgrace. A similar technique is embraced by advertisers, who eternally search for the next idea which they hope might one day go ‘viral.’ Whilst Brian Eno sees the process of evolving art and culture as more iterative – part of an ongoing process that allows us to keep in sync with one another and remain coherent. Much the same as dancing is a physical representation of this same phenomenon in action.

For the art historian Robert Hughes: ‘Nobody, or nobody with brains, assigns a missionary role to culture. The work of art is just one more consumer product among others.’8 Yet this argument was formed at the end of an increasingly flawed postmodern capitalist era, largely celebrating eclecticism, which is fast losing its own tenterhooks of relevance.

Through a time where both humanity and biodiversity come under threat from the potentially fatal collision of emerging technology and climate change. Then art and culture might be two of the few remaining ways by which we can continue to define ourselves, and that stand a chance of continuing to hold everything together.

Peter Kapos shines light here on a very relevant paradox when he suggests: ‘Designers occupy a contradictory position between the demands of capital and human needs.’9 The pendulum swings through history, and contrary to Hughes (and largely due to the present failure of capitalism), it would appear we may be swinging back towards the needs of the human.

Illustration – IF I WAS A...

Against this backdrop, Eno sees culture as a sort of collective ritual which we’re all engaged in together: ‘that doesn’t mean just the artists… it means everyone, it means all the people actually in the community, everybody – has been generating this huge, fantastic conversation which we call culture. Which somehow keeps us coherent, and keeps us together.’10

So perhaps it’s here we stumble across one more truism. We are all makers and producers now. Posting to Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Blogging, vlogging, podcasting, adding to the larger conversation and the ever-extending narrative that we call life and sometimes call art. Here, new headroom is emerging, and it’s beginning to look and feel at times a lot like a first articulation of a collective human consciousness, or mindspace.

In 2012 the Barbican Gallery hosted the largest Bauhaus exhibition the UK had seen for over 40 years. Titled ‘Art as Life’, it echoed both Aristotle’s view that ‘art imitates life’ and Oscar Wilde’s counter-argument that ‘life’ actually ‘imitates art.’ One detail here begins to really stand out: if we’re all participating in the art of life, then we all become contributory artists. As society changes around the artist, the artist changes around society too. Or in this particular instance, all of society becomes artists.

Culture is of course part of the ongoing conversation. So it is movements within the arts, science and technology that have the potential to capture the conversation, and steer culture in new directions. A movement with its compass set towards making more sustainable methods of living shows all the potential for greatness, but only if it can find a way of uniting the conversation between disparate cultures and specialist fields. In fact capturing the overall conversation is a prerequisite to steering culture on a more sustainable trajectory. The artist, therefore, will need to reach out to the scientist, technologist and so on, and vice versa.

Today the role of the arts within the development of a Sustainable Movement is critical from the point of view of fostering the cutting relevance so desperately needed. Casting an animated narrative full of vitality and buzzing with energy, which captures both our imagination and our hearts, and adds genuinely meaningful value that we can fully engage with. The movement will be only as strong as the connections that are made, so more than just reaching out to everyone living life, the magic will arrive only through actively bridging the gaps that exist within ‘the whole community.’


Next ︎
Chapter 21 —
The Value in Meaning

Credits & Notes

Walter Gropius
‘Programme of the Staatliche Bauhaus in Weimar’
Staatliche Bauhaus Weimar (Apr 1919)
cited by Bauhaus: Art as Life
Barbican Art Gallery, Koenig Books (2012)

John Maeda
Twitter / @johnmaeda (2010)

3 – 4
John Higgs
The KLF: Chaos, magic and the band who burned a million pounds
Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2012)

Adolf Loos
Panayotis Tournikiotis
Princeton Architectural Press (1997)

Morse Peckham cited by Brian Eno
John Peel Lecture
BBC Radio 6 (2015)

Don Pendleton
‘On the Bauhaus Issue’
Lodown Magazine No.53
(Sep 2006)

Robert Hughes
‘Paradise Now’
The Guardian (20 Mar 2006)

Peter Kapos
The Ulm Model
Raven Row (2016)

Brian Eno
John Peel Lecture
BBC Radio 6 (2015)


To purchase your own exclusive copy of the book, or a limited run A3 / A2 poster.

Head over to the shop ︎︎︎